Anique de Bruin Anique de Bruin Sacha Ruland

The downside of optimism - Anique de Bruin

Written by  Femke Kools Sunday, 15 January 2012 10:39
How overestimating your learning performance gets in the way

Could you describe your research?
I study the extent to which people are able to assess their own learning. This skill is known as metacognition. Generally speaking, students – particularly the poorest performing students – tend to greatly overestimate their performance when asked how they think they scored on a test. Overestimation leads to less learning, and thus to worse performance.
 I look for methods to improve these estimations, to enable students to perform better. Incidentally, this self-overestimation is a universal problem; for example, lecturers overestimate how much information students recall from their lectures, and doctors overestimate how well they perform certain clinical skills. It is a complex cognitive issue. In my PhD dissertation from 2006, I showed that chess experts can in fact reflect well on their own learning process. They know exactly what they need to practice in order to improve.

Why is that, and what can we do about it?
One of the causes of overestimation is our positive self-image. We’re optimists, which is usually very healthy, but in this case it’s not overly useful. Of course, people shouldn’t get the idea that they can’t do anything, but just that a slightly more realistic picture would be better. One method we found effective in primary school pupils is to have them note down keywords after they read a text. This appears to help them estimate their own learning performance much better. As for university students, they seem to overestimate themselves more if they think the teacher is going to be lenient when it comes to marking.

You were awarded a Veni grant in 2010. What is that research about?
Traditionally it was thought that reflecting aloud on your own learning performance improved your estimation – for example, answering questions like ‘Did you understand that well?’ or ‘What did you think of the text?’ But I wonder if that’s really the case. People have limited insight into the extent to which they have understood something, and so answer on the basis of false, superficial information like: ‘Yeah, I finished the test really fast’. What I study is the effectiveness of explicit reflection, and I test alternatives to this.

How do you do this?
I approach my questions in different ways, both via laboratory research with university students and in field work with children in primary and high school classes. I also do fMRI research into the brain activity of students when they evaluate their own performance after a memory test. And for my Veni research, I’ll be doing eye-movement research as well.

What is the societal relevance of your research?
Quite a lot of educational research is being done, but it needs to be put into practice more often. I want to help teachers to approach students more effectively. The idea is to come up with tips that are easy to implement, so that the teacher actually has the time and scope to use them in the classroom. And I’m now also writing a book with colleagues on how the principles of cognitive research can be translated to the classroom.

How multidisciplinary is your research?
I work at the crossroads of didactics and cognitive psychology. But I’m also involved in the field of medical education, particularly in diagnostic reasoning, and because I’m interested in educational neuroscience I do fMRI research as well. As part of my Veni research, I also want to approach economists, who have all sorts of knowledge in the fields of decision making and assessment.

The Dies theme is ‘Inspired by quality’. Who or what inspires you?
I’ve long been interested in how we learn and process new information. And I enjoy translating cognitive principles to education. Researchers who I admire in this field are the Americans Keith Thiede, John Dunlosky and Janet Metcalfe. I also have many colleagues here at UM who inspire me, including Professor Van Merriënboer. He was one of the reasons I came back to Maastricht.

Why did you choose to do this research at this university in particular?
After studying Psychology at UM, I started working as an assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2001. I did my PhD there and helped to set up the new Psychology programme. But in 2009 I decided to head back to Maastricht, to find a new and inspiring environment for my research. My appointment is largely focused on research, which is great. During my PhD research I had quite a heavy teaching load, so it’s really nice to actually have the time now for my research.


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